A Q&A for anyone worried about traveling right now: How to stay safe, what to avoid and do masks really help?

By Sara Clemence, Barbara Peterson and Deborah Dunn

The Wall Street Journal

April 3, 2020

Is there any place abroad that’s safe to travel right now? 

In a nutshell, no. The novel coronavirus has spread to more than 100 countries and every continent except for Antarctica. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued its sternest warning against international travel, citing the escalating coronavirus outbreak around the globe, increasing travel restrictions, quarantines and airline cancellations. The Level 4 advisory, which means “Do Not Travel,” is the highest level, typically issued for war zones but here applied to all international destinations. The State Department also urged those U.S. citizens already abroad to return immediately or prepare to stay outside of the U.S. indefinitely. Even apart from the State Department warning, American travelers won’t be welcomed in the growing number of countries that are closing their borders to nonresidents, including Canada, the 26 countries in the European Union and Australia. And due to the high number of confirmed cases on cruise ships, the CDC and the U.S. State Department are advising travelers, particularly those with underlying health issues, to avoid all cruise trips. The CDC also recommends older adults and travelers with underlying health issues to avoid long plane trips.

How are the new global travel restrictions affecting flights? 

Under heightened U.S. travel restrictions, announced on March 11 by President Trump, travelers from 26 European countries, as well as the United Kingdom and Ireland, are banned from entering the U.S. until mid-April or until the president lifts the restrictions. And now, many countries in Europe, Asia and South America, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are also temporarily banning foreign visitors. Several airlines had already cut transatlantic capacity and are now further reducing capacity worldwide. American Airlines recently announced that it would be cutting 75% of its international flights through May 6. The new travel restrictions created a spike in demand from travelers rushing to get back to the U.S., pushing up fares. And, due to considerable crowds of arriving passengers many U.S. airports—including in Chicago, New York and Dallas/Fort Worth—travelers reported unusually lengthy waits at screening checkpoints.

Are there any guidelines for traveling domestically?

There are currently no nationwide travel restrictions, though more than 25 states, including New York, California, Connecticut, North Carolina, Louisiana, New Jersey and Illinois, are ordering residents to mostly stay at home, leaving only for necessities, including groceries and outdoor (solitary) exercise. Many states are also closing all nonessential businesses, which includes museums, as well as monuments and many other tourist attractions. And on March 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a domestic travel advisory for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, urging residents of those states to suspend non-essential domestic travel for 14 days. For residents in other parts of the country, the CDC cites several reasons to avoid or delay trips. Among them: “Crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase chances of getting COVID-19.” The CDC’s strongest warning—against all cruise and air travel—targets adults 65 years and older and people with serious underlying health issues (including heart disease, lung disease and diabetes). But there are other considerations too, including the risk that someone with very few or no symptoms might pass Covid-19 to others while they’re traveling.

Should I avoid flying altogether? If I have to fly, should I wear a mask?

Health authorities, including the CDC, maintain that the risk of infection on airplanes is low. That may be even truer as air travel shrinks. According to the latest industry data, the few flights that are operating are averaging 20% to 30% full. That’s making it easier to follow social distancing norms; airlines are also cordoning off middle seats and many passengers find they have a whole row to themselves. Major airlines are drastically curtailing in-flight food and beverage service to limit contact between customers and crew. American, for example, is completely eliminating alcoholic drinks in coach class and Delta is cutting drink service entirely, serving only bottled water.

Still, to be on the safe side, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises travelers to exercise the same precautions they’d follow to avoid catching any bug: Keep hands clean and use antiseptic wipes on any surfaces, such as tray tables and armrests, where germs could linger. Contrary to popular belief, cabin air is less of a concern; virtually all international jetliners are equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, similar to those used in hospital operating room, capable of blocking more than 99% of airborne microbes. Cabin air is circulated vertically, from ceiling to floor, and refreshed every two to three minutes. 

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, medical experts said that most face masks—other than the industrial-strength N95—won’t protect you from other people’s illnesses; you’ll just prevent your own germs from spreading. Keep in mind that the virus spreads by droplets, not airborne transmission. But now health officials are reevaluating mask recommendations, and a growing number of doctors support wearing masks in public, even if you aren’t feeling ill.

I’ve heard that airports are taking fliers’ temperatures when they land. What happens if you are found to have a temperature?

If a passenger has a fever—considered by medical professionals to be a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher—what comes next will be up to local health authorities. “If someone is showing signs of a generic illness or Covid-19, they’ll likely be tested if they’re arriving from a country that has identified cases,” said Courtney Kansler, senior health intelligence analyst for risk management company WorldAware. Since by now nearly all countries with flights to the U.S. have reported cases, that means any international passengers arriving stateside will be checked. Those who might have been exposed to a suspected case but aren’t exhibiting signs of illness are sent to quarantine. Quarantines have taken many different forms. People returning to the U.S. have been required to stay home for two weeks after visiting a high-risk country or have been evacuated to military bases, while travelers overseas have been confined to hotels where cases were reported among their fellow guests.

Is flying private safer than flying commercial from a health point of view?

Potentially, but not in all cases. If you’re chartering a private plane, you can avoid the uncertainties of navigating large airport terminals and sitting close to total strangers. Even so, how could you know who was last sitting in your seat? Many private operators report that they’re doing extra cleaning after each trip; JetSuite, for example, says that on top of a thorough cleaning it’s deploying an “antimicrobial” coating system that it claims prohibits the spread of bacteria and germs. And, in other measures, Flexjet says its pilots and cabin crews are avoiding commercial flights, which they would normally use to commute to work.

Should pregnant women restrict travel within the U.S.? Is it safe to pass through international airports?

Rebecca Acosta, RN, executive director of Manhattan’s Traveler’s Medical Service, advises pregnant women to keep an eye on CDC guidelines. “If you’re pregnant, some illnesses can be more severe, including influenza,” said Ms. Acosta, pointing out that airports are places of mass gatherings, which means risk of infection is higher. “Follow the standard precautions outlined by the CDC, including getting the flu shot, practicing hand hygiene and keeping a distance—sitting at least 6 feet apart—from people who are noticeably ill. And stay tuned—this is an evolving situation.” 

What about crowded places or events?

Following the recommendations of health officials, who warn that crowded settings elevate the risk of exposure to Covid-19, several cities are canceling concerts, sporting events and large conferences. Disney theme parks in California, Florida and outside Paris are closed through the end of March. And the Tokyo Olympics, which had been scheduled to start on July 24, have been postponed until next year. . 

Should I avoid cruises altogether? 

After the recent quarantines of passengers on ocean liners and the rapid rise of confirmed cases among the passengers, the CDC and the U.S. State Department issued heightened travel warnings, advising travelers to defer all cruise ship travel world-wide. The CDC points out that the people at highest risk of falling seriously ill from Covid-19 are older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, lung disease and diabetes. On March 13, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 50 cruise operators, including Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, announced that all of its ocean-going cruise ships will voluntarily suspend operations from and to U.S. ports of call for 30 days. Viking Cruises and Disney Cruise Lines are also temporarily suspending voyages.

If I already have a cruise booked for later this year, can I cancel it without penalty?

In the event the cruise line itself cancels a voyage, passengers are typically given a full refund and often credit for a future departure. And now many cruise lines, including Viking and Norwegian, are extending similar policies to most if not all of their voyages. “Some lines have begun offering cancel-for-any-reason policies,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, chief content officer of Cruise Media. “Travelers who want to cancel an existing booking will either get a refund or 100% credit for use on another trip.” 

How are airlines changing their cancellation or booking policies in light of the coronavirus?

Most major airlines were already waiving change fees for passengers booked to travel to regions outside the U.S. over the next few months. Now, faced with soft demand for future trips, some are extending this flexibility to new tickets to other routes. American Airlines, for example, is allowing one fee-free change for all customers who buy tickets from now through April 15 up to early next year. Any changes must be made before the departure of the first flight. Delta—which also decided to offer one-time changes with no penalty for all flights booked now through April 15 for travel up to Feb. 25, 2021—has further broadened its waiver. The airline will now let customers change their existing reservations for trips through April 30 without incurring a fee. United, for its part, is waiving change fees for all new bookings made from now through March 31 for travel during the next year, and you can change plans up to the time of departure. And even though they don’t operate a lot of long-distance flights to foreign destinations, Alaska Airlines is waiving fees for tickets purchased up until April 30 for any travel through June 30, and JetBlue is also waiving all change and cancellation fees for flights through April 30. 

I want to cancel my flight, not postpone it. How can I get refund?

Under most airlines’ policies, if you are choosing to cancel a flight that is still operating simply because you don’t want to travel—now or ever—you are not entitled to a full refund, just a credit for future use (usually within the next year). That doesn’t mean you should accept that without a fight, said Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of the aviation consumer group Travel Fairness Now. Given the uncertainty over when the travel industry might rebound, Mr. Ebenhoch says consumers can argue your case to an airline customer service agent, if you can get one on the phone, that is. A better bet might be to dispute the charge with the credit card you used to buy it. And if you’ve got a ticket for travel in the near future, you could simply wait to see if the airline scrubs it—as most carriers are still scaling back operations. If it’s the airline’s call to cancel, it owes you the full amount. The U.S. Department of Transportation “is very clear on that point,” said Mr. Ebenhoch. Even so, some airlines are working hard to persuade customers to hang on the ticket, with some even offering a “bonus” on top of the face value of the ticket. 

What about hotels?

A number of hotel chains—including Marriott, Hilton and IHG—are temporarily waiving cancellation and rebooking fees for all properties worldwide. Even if your hotel hasn’t revised their cancellation policy in the wake of the coronavirus, there might still be some wiggle room. It doesn’t hurt to go directly to the travel provider if you don’t want to travel at all, said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at creditcards.com. “Your best odds of getting a refund is through the supplier,” he said.

Is there any point in buying travel insurance if coronavirus isn’t covered by it?

If you’re insuring your trip because of Covid-19, you are probably out of luck; most trip-protection policies won’t refund you if you back out of an upcoming trip because you’re afraid to go. But you might get a partial refund if your policy includes trip interruption coverage and you fall ill while traveling, or have to return home earlier than expected, depending on the circumstances. Another option is to buy a much more expensive “cancel for any reason” policy. These CFAR plans, as they’re known, frequently cost 40% more than basic insurance, and the coverage often pays out only 50% to 75% of your total expenses, compared with the full cost paid by regular policies. Consumers should make sure to check the fine print for any exceptions. Websites like SquareMouth and Travelinsurance.com let you comparison shop among insurers and filter search results by specific parameters.

Are there any “safe” vacations I can plan?

Health experts caution against traveling now, even via domestic road trips. “It’s very natural to have escape fantasies,” said Ms. Acosta. “However, for now, the best and safest place to be may be home.” She suggested that travelers take a cue from Jerry Seinfeld, who recently announced on Instagram that he’d be postponing his shows at New York City’s Beacon Theater, adding “Let’s do this another time when we can relax and enjoy it a lot more.” Dr. Dawood agrees: “Let’s be armchair travelers for now, and look forward to making up for lost time when things settle.”

When will it be safe to travel again? What are the odds that we’ll still be housebound this summer?

The short answer is: It depends on whom you ask. No one really knows for sure and predictions vary wildly. Based on reports that China is slowly reopening, however, travel industry leaders, such as Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, have been cautiously optimistic that at least some major hotel properties will be up and running again by summer. In New York City, some hotels have said they may reopen in May or June. Others are only taking reservations for July and beyond. But those timelines could shift. “We are in wait-and-see mode,” said Chris Heywood, executive vice president of NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism organization.